How Thunderbird 3 works on Mac OS X: Better than Apple Mail?

If you work with multiple systems, a cross-platform email client can be convenient. Vincent Danen takes a look at the Linux-based Thunderbird 3 and compares it to Apple Mail.

If you work with multiple systems, a cross-platform email client can be convenient. Vincent Danen takes a look at the Linux-based Thunderbird 3 and compares it to Apple Mail.


There are quite a few email clients for Mac OS X, but very few seamlessly mesh with the many features the OS X operating system provides, unless you use Apple's Mail client. Mail can handle POP3, IMAP and Microsoft Exchange, provides decent filtering, and integrates with Address Book and iCal (the latter for tasks and TODO items). For many, Apple Mail is sufficient for their needs.

If you come from another operating system, such as Linux or Windows, you may be used to other email clients, such as Mozilla's Thunderbird. Thunderbird is a good cross-platform email client, so if you do use multiple operating systems, perhaps using Thunderbird on all of them makes sense if you want your mail experience to be consistent.

Older versions of Thunderbird had very poor OS X support. Because OS X has its own Address Book, which integrates with other services such as iChat, the missing Address Book support in Thunderbird 2 was an omission that kept many Mac users from giving it a try. Thunderbird could be strong in many areas, but forcing OS X users to keep two separate lists of email addresses was a hard pill for many to swallow. Thankfully, Thunderbird 3 remedied the oversight and works well with the OS X Address Book.

Thunderbird 3 brought many new features as well, including tabs for email. Like most browsers that allow you to open multiple Web pages in tabs, Thunderbird now allows you to open emails and search results in new tabs. And like Firefox, Thunderbird has many available add-ons written by many different individuals that can greatly enhance how you work with your email.

The current version of Thunderbird is 3.0.3. So how does it stack up against the current version of Apple Mail in Snow Leopard? Using both email clients to connect to a Google Apps account using IMAP, I took Thunderbird for a spin to see how it measured up against Apple's Mail which I've been using daily for about a year now.

Getting Apple Mail set up for Google Apps wasn't too terribly difficult. Thunderbird is actually easier overall, but keep in mind that using a Google Apps account for will have Thunderbird looking up and by default, rather than the Gmail counterparts. This is easily rectified, however.

With a one-window setup for the email account, after providing basic account information, you will immediately be brought to the primary mail window. The nice thing with IMAP is that all of your mail is immediately there, including folders that you had previously set up. And if all your filtering is done server-side, then about the only thing you need to set up when switching to a new mail client is your signature text.

The primary difference between the two is that Apple Mail hides a lot of complexity (aside from the initial account setup, which is more involved in Mail than in Thunderbird). Thunderbird on the other hand, provides a lot of flexibility -- but this comes at the cost of some complexity. For instance, it has three  address books: the OS X address book, a "personal" address book, and automatically imported addresses, should you have configured Thunderbird to keep all mail addresses it comes across.

This is really no different from Mail, other than Mail stores these addresses as a hidden "auto-complete" feature. Thunderbird doesn't hide it. Also, everything for Mail is configured in the Preferences. With Thunderbird, you have the application preferences, but also account settings which is strangely hidden in the Tools menu.

The one place where Thunderbird blows Mail out of the water is with the add-ons. Using the add-ons, you can GPG sign mail using the Enigmail add-on; you can sync contacts with Gmail or Zimbra using the Zindus add-on; and expand tiny URLs (via URL shortening services) using TheRealURL. Looking at the Thunderbird add-ons page, there truly is something for everyone: with over 640 "miscellaneous" add-ons alone, how could there not be?

For the look and feel, Thunderbird isn't as seamless or "Mac-like" as Apple Mail. The tab feature is cool, but not a deal-breaker. As far as speed goes, Mail hasn't been a slouch when it comes to IMAP for me, but I also don't keep hundreds of emails in any folders. Thunderbird feels just as snappy. What might sway users of Mail to give Thunderbird a try are the add-ons. Most of these add-ons work on all platforms, so if you're looking for a powerful yet consistent cross-platform email client, Mozilla's latest Thunderbird might be just what you are looking for.